THE SCHOOL without a systematic marketing strategy is fast becoming an anachronism. As competition between schools is stepped up and statutory obligations to publish the minutiae of school life become more entrenched, no school will be ready to face the market-led future without some Mandelsonian strategist on the payroll.
Consider the schools vying for this year's TES School Prospectus Awards, the winners of which get state-of-the-art publishing technology in the form of the Document Centre donated by competition sponsor Xerox. It scans, faxes, prints, digitally stores, interfaces with your school PCs, collates and staples. Oh, and it photocopies.
Sceptics may see a certain irony in the fact that the winners will probably be the schools in least need of such a technological wonder - winning schools by definition being well able to produce the best documents. But this would be to misunderstand the logic of the new educational marketplace, where it is in the nature of competition to create winners and losers. Besides, many of the competition judges in recent years believe that the best prospectus is not necessarily the one printed on the glossiest paper or with the sexiest range of colours.
Nor is the competition only about prizes. Any school achieving a high enough standard will receive the award giving them the right to emblazon the logo on their next prospectus to show it has been recognised as a good prosepectus.
What is likely is that schools will rely increasingly on outside agencies to achieve the best possible quality in their publications. Doubtless, too, in the longer term, they will aspire to the publication of their prospectus on a website, CD-Rom or video production - indeed, some contestants have already submitted examples of these - but Xerox, for one, has recognised that both a marketing strategy and the use of the printed word are indispensable to schools for the foreseeable future.
John Farrell, Xerox's strategic alliances manager and a judge for the award, says the company is informed by industrial sociology and anthropology that paper communication is hardly an endangered means of working.
"In many ways, electronic forms of communication can knock spots off other methods, but the research shows us that people still think with paper and that a large part of the creative process in many projects remains paper-based." says Mr Farrell.Carol Griffiths is the local government marketing manager at Xerox. She says that the sponsors are planning to offer training days to staff at prizewinning schools.
"We can be led by the needs of the school in this," she said, "but we can offer management development days, training in quality or other kinds of support with marketing techniques."
Consultancies around the country are also meeting the self-promotional needs of schools. One such agency is Metafour, a Midlands-based group of marketing strategists and designers that is taking on more and more educational clients.
Graham Darbyshire, a Metafour partner, says there are several reasons why schools need to look for external support with publication of their prospectuses.
"The main problem is time," he says, "and, in our experience, teachers are already working incredibly hard. Also, if people don't know what they're doing they can end up with something that looks amateurish."
He cites some of the essential qualities of such documents: they should be free from jargon, be reader-friendly and have good quality photographs with clear captions. "Schools need to find that fine balance to avoid appearing desperate at one extreme but also to avoid giving the impression that they've got more money than sense."
Metafour's consultants vouch for the positive results of effective marketing and can give examples in which focus groups or analyses of the public's perception of schools in their communities have been used to turn around unfavourable trends in, say, teacher recruitment or seemingly inexplicable defections of parents and children to other schools.
The school marketing strategists are in no doubt that the prospectus is the most vital of school documents, as the decisive point of first contact with all prospective parents, students, governors and staff.
This view is confirmed with the arrival this week of the lastest publication from the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE). The Communicating School is a guide for school managers with advice on schools' in-house publishing ventures and the development of marketing techniques and PR strategies to raise the school's public profile locally.
ACE's lists of dos and don'ts extend the growing demands already laid down by Department for Education and Employment guidelines on school publications. Add the growing catalogue of stipulations compiled by consultancies such as Metafour, while not forgetting the 65 bullet points offered by Xerox as a reminder of the preferred ingredients of a "good school prospectus", and by this point, schools' task of keeping their various customers satisfied is nothing less than Herculean in scale.
With so many potential pitfalls, those who finally carry off their multi-functional trophies and complementary lessons in PR will have been worthy indeed. Bring on the judges!
Al Constantine, a freelance journalist, is a former primary school and